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Saturday, May 20, 2017

Poker Pro and Chess Master Nate Solon

I had the great pleasure of interviewing FM Nate Solon. Admittedly, Nate discovered Better Chess Training first and through several conversations during previous articles, I decided that it was time to invite him for an interview. Mr. Solon generously accepted. 
My questions are in bold.

Learning to Play and Getting to Master Level

Better Chess Training (BCT): Tell me about your chess beginnings. How old were you?

FM Nate Solon
I started playing around fourth grade, so about nine years old. Many people learn chess from their dad, but my dad and I learned at the same time. I remember we had a set where the moves were displayed on the pieces. Initially we were evenly matched, but I surpassed him pretty quickly.

BCT: At what age did you start playing tournament chess?

Checking my rating history, I see my first tournament was in 1995 when I was ten. I started playing in tournaments not too long after I learned how to play.

BCT: On your way to master level, where there any difficult plateaus at certain ratings levels? How did you overcome them?

My rating graph is fairly smooth, with a small dip around 2000. I definitely remember feeling frustrated many times that I wasn’t improving as quickly as I wanted to, but I don’t remember any specific “aha!” moments where I consciously realized something that made a big difference. It was more a continuous grind of playing, and then all of a sudden I would get stronger.

BCT: Did you have any coaches as you improved along the way?

My first coach was the owner of the chess club where I first started playing. He was around 1700 strength. One of my weaknesses early on was playing too cautiously or passively and he encouraged me to play more aggressively. I remember a tournament game in which I defeated him with a wild, sacrificial attack. It was probably totally unsound, but it showed that I had learned the lesson. He was very proud. Looking back, I think that shows what a generous and insightful teacher he was. He was able to help me grow as a player and when I used what he taught me to beat him, he was more happy for me than disappointed about losing.

Later on, I worked with a full-time chess teacher who was around 2400 strength. He was able to help me with more technical parts of my game.

BCT: Did you have any books that made a big impression on you in your climb up the ratings ladder?

I had a puzzle book early on that had a mix of checkmates, tactics, studies, and even things like retrograde puzzles. I was really fascinated by that. As far as strategy, I read the Play Winning Chess series by Yasser Seirawan and Jeremy Silman. There are probably a lot of good books for beginners, but those served me well.

My first teacher gave me the Zurich 1953 book by David Bronstein and I spent a lot of time going over those games. I think good annotated games are probably one of the best things to study, especially early on. Other books I remember include My System - couldn’t really make heads or tails of it - and Fire on Board by Shirov - I was very impressed by the games, but didn’t really understand them. I also remember spending a lot of time on Reassess Your Chess.

Overall, my approach to chess books (and chess in general) was not very organized. I skimmed many more books than I read, but I was always thinking about chess.

Approach to Chess

BCT: Do you have a specific approach or style to your chess?

I think poker has taught me to be pragmatic (I’ve been playing poker for a living for about eight years). I’m a lot more open to the idea that many approaches work and it’s not always necessary to play the “best” move than I used to be when I was just a chess player.

As far as my own style, I tend to have a good feel for the initiative and the energy of the pieces. I’m pretty dangerous if you give me an attack, but I’m weaker when it comes to defending or navigating murky positions.

BCT: What are the similarities and differences between poker and chess?

They have a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. They both have very deep strategy; the more you learn, the more you realize how much you don’t know. You have to study and practice for a long time to get good.

The biggest difference is the level of variance. In chess, it’s rare to lose to a much weaker player, and if you do, you can usually point to the mistake that caused it. In poker, you lose to weaker players all the time. And I mean really weak players, the poker equivalent of someone starting the game with f3, g4 or something. But then you lose. That can be tough to deal with, especially if chess is your frame of reference.
BCT: I've noticed several high level chess players have delved into poker at a professional level...this could be another topic that we discuss in a future conversation!

BCT: Do you have a favorite player and what do you like about that player?

I’ll say two - one to watch and one to imitate.

My favorite player to watch is Tal. His games are completely insane. Most people like to gain some kind of advantage, then consolidate, make things safe, and try to gain another advantage. Tal just leaves everything floating in the air all the time. Even after playing over his games many times, I still can’t understand how he’s doing it. But trying to imitate this style usually doesn’t work out very well!

My favorite player to imitate is Carlsen. Of course, I’ll never be anywhere near as good as he is, but the thing that players of all levels can take from him is his fighting spirit. He never gives up and plays to win in all positions. Grit is such an important factor - it can trump a lot of other aspects of chess. If you want to improve, you really need to fight against that voice that says, “Let’s take it easy, let’s not fight today.”

BCT: What are your favorite games of Carlsen and Tal?

For Carlsen, I came across this game while researching the London System and was really impressed by it. This is like the chess equivalent of Steph Curry crossing someone over: the elegance, the sly sense of humor, always being two steps ahead. The defender keeps thinking he’s about to have things under control, only to realize he’s wildly off balance for the next move. This game gives me a really strong sense of Carlsen’s insight and wit.

[Event "Tata Steel"]
[Site "Wijk aan Zee NED"]
[Date "2016.01.22"]
[EventDate "2016.01.15"]
[Round "6"]
[Result "1-0"]
[White "Magnus Carlsen"]
[Black "Evgeny Tomashevsky"]
[ECO "A46"]
[WhiteElo "2844"]
[BlackElo "2728"]
[PlyCount "59"]

1. d4 Nf6 2. Nf3 e6 3. Bf4 b6 4. e3 Bb7 5. h3 Be7 6. Bd3 O-O
7. O-O c5 8. c3 Nc6 9. Nbd2 d5 10. Qe2 Bd6 11. Rfe1 Ne7
12. Rad1 Ng6 13. Bxg6 hxg6 14. Bxd6 Qxd6 15. Ne5 g5 16. f4
gxf4 17. Rf1 Nd7 18. Qh5 Nf6 19. Qh4 Qd8 20. Rxf4 Ne4 21. Nxe4
Qxh4 22. Rxh4 dxe4 23. dxc5 bxc5 24. Rd7 Rab8 25. b3 a5
26. Rc7 a4 27. bxa4 Ba8 28. a5 Rb7 29. Rxc5 Ra7 30. Nc4 1-0

The following game has that unique Tal thing where everything is hanging in the air, then suddenly coalesces into a winning position in a way that’s really hard to wrap your head around. The crazy thing is that there’s so many Tal games I could have picked. For most people, this would be the best game of their career, but for Tal it’s just a day at the office.

[Event "Tallinn"]
[Site "01"]
[Date "1964.??.??"]
[EventDate "?"]
[Round "?"]
[Result "1-0"]
[White "Mikhail Tal"]
[Black "Anatoly S Lutikov"]
[ECO "C40"]
[WhiteElo "?"]
[BlackElo "?"]
[PlyCount "61"]

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 d5 3.exd5 e4 4.Qe2 f5 5.d3 Nf6 6.dxe4 fxe4 7.Nc3
Bb4 8.Qb5+ c6 9.Qxb4 exf3 10.Bg5 cxd5 11.O-O-O Nc6 12.Qa3 Be6
13.Bc4 Qe7 14.Nxd5 Qxa3 15.Nc7+ Ke7 16.Rhe1 Qc5 17.Rxe6+ Kf8
18.Rxf6+ gxf6 19.Ne6+ Ke7 20.Nxc5 fxg5 21.Rd7+ Kf6 22.Rd6+ Ke7
23.Re6+ Kd8 24.Nxb7+ Kc7 25.Bd5 Nb4 26.Bxf3 Rae8 27.Nc5 Nxa2+
28.Kb1 Rxe6 29.Nxe6+ Kd7 30.Nc5+ Kd6 31.Nd3 1-0

BCT: What do you enjoy about chess?

I like that chess is completely absorbing and inexhaustible - the more you learn, the more you realize how much deeper it goes. Compared to poker, I like that in chess you “deserve” the result you get. Having played a lot of different games now, I’ve found most people prefer some luck in their games - they don’t really want to be in control of everything. But for me, poker is too far towards the luck-driven side of the spectrum and I prefer chess.

BCT: What does chess mean to you?

Coming back to chess recently, after not having spent much time on it for years, has made me realize how deep my connection with chess is. I’m still not really sure why I’m so drawn to it and sometimes I wonder what I could have accomplished if I put the same amount of effort into something more traditionally useful, but at this point I just accept that for whatever reason I have a tremendous affinity with chess. Right now I’m focused on improving as a player and teacher.

BCT: Do you have a favorite game (of yours)?

[Event "Import"]
[Site "https://lichess.org/mOTcEa75"]
[Date "2017.05.10"]
[Round "-"]
[White "Nathan Solon"]
[Black "Richard Kenneth Delaune Jr"]
[Result "1-0"]
[WhiteElo "2317"]
[BlackElo "2364"]
[ECO "D44"]
[TimeControl "-"]
[Termination "Normal"]
[Variant "Standard"]
[Opening "Semi-Slav Defense: Botvinnik System, Lilienthal Variation"]
[Annotator "https://lichess.org/@/CheckRaiseMate"]

1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.Bg5
{Reading Shirov's game collection probably influenced me to go for the
super sharp Botvinnik Variation.}
5...dxc4 6.e4 b5 7.e5 h6 8.Bh4 g5 9.Nxg5 hxg5 10.Bxg5 Nbd7 11.g3 Qa5 12.
exf6 Ba6 13.a3 O-O-O 14.Bg2 Nc5 15.dxc5
{I think this queen sacrifice might have been a novelty at the time.
Probably not a good one, since grandmasters have chosen 15. 0-0 in
this position, but it seems to me that white's position is easier to
15...Rxd1+ 16.Rxd1 b4 $2
{It's not wise for black to open lines on the queenside, where his
king is. Simply 16...Bxc5 was better.}
17.axb4 Qxb4 18.O-O Qxc5 19.Ne4 Qf5 20.Ra1 Bb7 21.Rxa7 Bc5 22.Rfa1
{The point isn't to defend the rook, which can't be taken anyway
because of Nd6, but to introduce the threats of Ra8 and Ra5. This
forces black to go for a forcing sequence...}
22...Bxf2+ 23.Nxf2 Qxg5 24.Ra8+ Bxa8 25.Rxa8+ Kc7 26.Rxh8 Qxf6 27.Rh4 Qxb2
{The ending is probably winning for white due to his material
advantage, but it's not that easy. I managed to get there in the end.}
28...Qa1+ 29.Bf1 f5 30.Rf4 Kd6 31.h4 Qb1 32.Kg2 c5 33.Bd3 Qb7+ 34.Kh2 Qg7
35.h5 Qh6 36.Be2 Ke7 37.Kg2 Qg5 38.Rh4 Qh6 39.Rf4 Qg5 40.Nd3 c4 41.Rxc4
Qe3 42.Nf4 Kd6 43.Ra4 e5 44.Ra6+ Kc5 45.Re6 Qe4+ 46.Kh2 Kd4 47.h6 Qb7 48.
Nh3 Qb2 49.Ng1 e4 50.h7 Qb8 51.Rh6
{1-0 Black resigns.}

Chess Instruction

BCT: What is your teaching philosophy?

My approach to teaching is constantly evolving. I believe the most important qualification for a good teacher is a sincere commitment to helping each student improve. Therefore, I spend a lot of time thinking about what would be most helpful for each individual.

Recently I have been focused on making my lessons as interactive as possible. I find the student learns the most when they are actively practicing the concepts. For that purpose, I’m developing a database of instructive positions so I can give each student examples and exercises focusing on the areas of their game that are most important for where they are right now.

BCT: Where can people reach you on the internet?

BCT: Any upcoming projects?

I’m working on an app that will make it easy to search a position database by thematic tags and print out a selection of positions in a nice format for study. I just started learning to code so it may be awhile before it’s ready for use by other people.

BCT: Great! We’ll have to do a follow-up once your app is up and running!

I appreciate this conversation and the thoughtfulness in your answers, Nate. Do you have any parting advice for our readers?

For one piece of advice, I would suggest creating records of the work you do on chess. So for openings, have your repertoire stored somewhere, preferably something like chessable or chessply that allows you to drill the lines you've decided are worth memorizing. For your games, create a personal database with chessbase or similar where you enter all your tournament games. If you annotate them, even better. For tactics and any other regular training you do, use a goal tracking app to make sure you're sticking to a routine. 

This helps create a sense of progress and a way to get out of that cycle a lot of people find themselves in where they play a lot of chess but never seem to improve.

Your Turn

We will definitely catching up with Nate Solon again for future discussions.

Do you have any questions for Nate? 

Put them in the comments below and I'll either forward them to him or he'll answer them here!


  1. Thanks Bryan for posting this Fascinating interview. I too learned to play chess before poker, and I have only occasionally played in some small-stakes casino tournament, but mostly it's home tournaments with only a $40-$60 Buy-In.

    But now I've returned to chess. And I decided that I like chess more. Which I thought was odd because poker is way more popular, way more able to socialize and have fun with friends, and way better way to make money. Of course, you could lose money too, but that's just "variance" as Nate would say.

    Anyways, my question is this, for both Nate and Bryan: I can't calculate OTB very well. Any suggestions. I heard it said to learn to play blindfold. The image is fuzzy after 5 moves. I can't keep things straight. Am I doomed?

    Help, please.

    1. Hey SP,
      Thank you for your comment. Well, calculation is very important, and if you feel you're not very good at it, don't despair. First off, it is a skill that can be improved and there are simple ways to do it.

      I think playing blindfold isn't that great, because there are too many variables at play besides trying to calculate. I think it might be helpful to isolate the calculation component.

      I'll write a more detailed article about this perhaps, but I think simple solving mate-in-three checkmate problems is a simple and effective way to start to develop your ability to see ahead.

      Solving combination problems is another great way, but I think because checkmate problems are easier - e.g. you know what the end result will be and don't have to worry about "evaluation" - you can focus on visualizing ahead and calculation.

      Try it out and check back in with us!

    2. I think blindfold chess is more of a stunt than anything else. I definitely wouldn't sweat it if you're not good at it, and I wouldn't recommend it as a training method.

      What I would suggest is doing daily tactics training. This is generally the second thing I recommend to people who want to improve at chess (the first is "Play a lot of games"). I like chesstempo.com for this, but sites like chess.com and lichess.org also have tactics training built in. They're all fine.

      A few tips for better results...
      -Decide how much time you'd like to spend per day on training, then make a system to track whether you've done it each day. It can be a very short time (say 10 minutes) but if you do it every day you'll see improvement. I prefer a time, rather than # of problems solved, because it's easier to commit to it if you know how much time it takes.
      -Focus as hard as you can for the allotted time. Don't "cheat the drill" by trying a random move and letting the computer correct you. That just trains you to be lazy, which is obviously counterproductive. At the same time, don't kill yourself on one problem if you can't figure it out. It can be nearly impossible to solve some problems if you don't know the patterns and spending your whole daily time banging your head against the wall isn't efficient. If you can't get it after a few minutes, maximum, check the answer and move on
      -It's really important to do it EVERY DAY.

  2. I love poker and chess both. So, this guy is idol for me to learn about both the games. I came to know about this guy few months back. Thanks for sharing this useful information.

    1. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Nate is a great guy and I'm glad to have met and interviewed him.